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When former touring musician Kevin Sur (Kānaka Maoli) was passing Boeing Field driving his U-Haul up I-5 on his move to Seattle in 2002, he turned on the radio and heard the local radio station, KEXP, for the first time. Jawbreaker, a punk rock band he was obsessed with as a teen growing up in the Bay Area, was playing.

“Within 20 minutes of listening to the station, I realized I'm going to be OK here,” Sur said. “There was nothing like this back where I came from.”

The station, which draws 180 thousand weekly listeners and has a reputation as “one of the most influential listener-supported music radio stations in the world,” has only continued to surprise him, Sur said.

Now, more than two decades after his initial move to the Pacific Northwest, Sur is a DJ for the station, co-hosting his own radio hour playing exclusively global Indigenous music, called Sounds of Survivance. 

Sur talked to Native News Online about being a voice for musicians, what it means to be truly inclusive and one song he thinks you should listen to.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Introduce yourself. Who are you, what’s your deal, and what do you see your role as in the music industry in Seattle?
I'm a former touring musician and have experienced a lot of the positive and negative sides of the music industry. I moved here to just be in a city where I could find a new path with music and a place to explore and learn everything about it after spending a long time on the road. I fell in love with Seattle and immediately learned that there was so much to offer. Seattle had such a great foundation for the music economy, specifically with KEXP but also with all the local venues and, at the time, there were journalists writing about music. 

I studied music, got a degree in composition, and then came back here, to find a place within the community where I could be beneficial. Much of my role here has been trying to be a voice in the artist’s corner that I didn’t have when I was a working musician. I founded Artist Home in 2008, and since then we’ve produced music festivals that are known for fostering community but also music discovery.  The entire time we’ve also had a policy of offering free advice and consultation to any artist that seeks it. And so we've been in their corner, giving them advice, coaching them on how to promote their albums and their shows.

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How did Sounds of Survivance begin, and what role does it play? 
Well, I never even imagined KEXP would have a show centered on Indigenous music. This whole journey started for me back in July, when I learned KEXP had an open call for DJs to produce a specialty radio show geared towards Indigenous music. When I heard about it, my initial response was, ‘I don't even think the station understands how huge of a pile of work that is.’ Because I've felt that inclusivity in the Indigenous landscape has been lacking. I felt that kuleana — the Hawaiian word for responsibility — would have to come with that show. I knew I had to apply because I didn't want someone else to mess it up. I knew how rare the opportunity was on the best radio station on the planet.

My goal with the show was to truly produce an inclusive program. Celebrations of Indigeneity tend to focus on the place that they’re in, and the people that immediately surround them. I never felt like that was very inclusive, and it made me realize that people’s view of Indigeneity needs to be expanded. So my idea was a program that hops all over the world, and I do it from the perspective of honoring other people's ancestors in the same way I learned to honor my own. It's a mountain of work, because you're literally representing thousands of Nations to have a show that goes all around the world.

How did you end up co-hosting with Tory J (Quinault)? Did you have a pre-existing relationship?
No, we both got hired through the same process. We bring two different perspectives. Tory is a PhD candidate in Native American studies, so in terms of the academic sphere and historical context, political movements, and straight law, he’s there to help us shape what the show is, and to help articulate some of the things that I have trouble finding the right words for. And everyone’s going to have their own taste, so we’re each introducing the other to great music and coordinating new music.

How would you describe your musical taste?
There’s not a genre of music that I don’t love. My background started with my dad’s records, which were heavily Motown, opera, and folk music, and Hawaiian music.

I grew up listening to everything. I was in a punk bank for 7 years. I then played in different indie folk outfits and studied composition. I sang opera. My taste is kind of all over the place, which I think suits the show. 

How do you source the global Indigenous music that you play? 
I’m kind of a research nerd, and I’m always searching for that new band that no one's ever heard before.

To start, I have to know that artists are Indigenous. That’s more complex than one would expect because being Indigenous isn't necessarily something that people wear on their sleeves because it's not something that has opened doors for them in the past. 

It's about holding yourself to the highest standard possible when it comes to music research. I have this attitude of ‘be inclusive, and if you can’t find the thing that allows you to be inclusive, then you need to work harder to find it.’ I didn’t expect my biggest challenge to be Latin America. I've actually had regular meetings with UCLA’s anthropology department and to talk with experts about how suppressed Indigenous people in Latin America were over generations to identifying themselves as Indigenous. It’s understanding the history and the struggle of those places but then also understanding that it takes time and effort.

Can you talk about the title of the hour, and what Songs of Survivance means to you as a Native person and musician? What’s your hope for the station?
Tory actually brought it as an idea to name the show. It was a word that was given context by an Anishinaabe theorist Gerald Vizenor. And the term implies that our survival is resistance, and it truly is. Indigenous people from around the world were outlawed in the same world and lived through genocidal acts and we’re still here, and we’re reclaiming our language, our cultural practices, and we’re reconnecting with all the things that were literally outlawed. 

Part of my hope is to play a small part in evolving people’s ideas about what it means to be Indigenous, and how broad Indigenous people are throughout the world, but on the other hand, it's really working so that Indigenous people like myself, who is here on the mainland separated from the place I belong to—where you can really feel like an endangered species. So my hope is that out there Indigenous Peoples, people whose numbers are few, hear themselves and their people included alongside all these other people that have a shared history and that they feel empowered by that and they feel like they belong. Empowerment and solidarity are really the goals. For non-indigenous listeners, it’s about understanding a better sense of the world 

Can you recommend one song for our readers?
In this moment, I’d cheat and say go listen to Isabel Khalili’s podcast that was just released, because I get to talk about four songs. 

But in the context of today, I would say Fawn Wood’s ‘Remember Me’ because we had Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's (MMIW)  Day, and even though it's not in a Native language, it's a song written for those MMIW and even thinking about it gets me teary-eyed.

What’s been the impact of the show thus far?
Since Tory and I have started at the station, I can name seven Indigenous bands that have started at KEXP that have been played heavily because we have this antenna out with a hyper-focus on Indigenous people. For example, Liv Rion, is a Quinault Nation member that Tory knew and introduced me to. When her first album came out, we introduced it to the station, everyone heard it and was like, ‘Woah,’ and now it's been getting played like crazy. It helps make a more inclusive KEXP as a whole, and I think that’s part of the mission.

Listeners can hear “Sounds of Survivance” every Monday from 3-5 AM PT, or archived on the station’s website. 

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.